This book by Sarah Stankorb – wow.  It was a smack in the face.  I’ve rarely read a book as confronting. 

It’s subtitled “How a Small Group of Faithful Women Exposed Abuse, Brought Down Powerful Pastors, and Ignited an Evangelical Reckoning.”  In that subtitle on the cover, the word “Faithful” is in bold type, as are the words “Evangelical Reckoning.”  Those choices (I suspect out of the hands of the author) already raise some questions.  “Faithful” – to who or what?  “Evangelical Reckoning” – with what?  The last question is easier to answer than the first.  Clearly it’s a reckoning with the place of women and how women have been treated in evangelical churches.  What some have called “sexual abuse hysteria” is revealed here to be a real sexual abuse nightmare for many women and some men too.     

This isn’t meant to be a full review of the book.  I just want to discuss some things that came to mind as I was reading it.  Pardon the somewhat rambling nature of what follows.

The first thing I’m going to say about it shouldn’t be misunderstood.  So let me be clear about two things: 

1) You don’t have to be a Christian to be a whistle-blower on what’s going on in Christian churches.  We should evaluate everything critically, of course, but if after evaluation it appears the truth is being spoken, it is the truth regardless of who said it. 

2) What a shame it is when churches aren’t taking ownership of their own dirty laundry and are then called out on it by the world.  The Bible speaks about this shame in Romans 2:24, “For as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’”  It’s also in 2 Peter 2:2, “And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed.”      

With those points in place, I think we do need to take the author into account here.  Sarah Stankorb isn’t a Christian, though she says she once identified herself as such.  She went through the process of deconstruction and now says she doesn’t believe in God.  Despite that, she is a religion reporter.  She has been focussing on the place of women in American evangelical religion.  While she is an investigative journalist and generally follows the standards of that trade, she doesn’t hide her own ideological baggage.  She’s a supporter of the sexual revolution and is pro-choice.  This becomes evident at numerous places in the book. 

Further straying from an objective reporting style, she includes herself in the story line.  In that personal story, she describes studying at a Christian liberal arts college and learning some remarkable new (to her) things about the Bible from a Presbyterian minister.  She learned that Genesis 1 and 2 present two irreconcilably different creation stories and that the pastoral epistles (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus) were likely not written by Paul, but by one of his disciples.  For her, that “fact” appears to draw into question the statements made in these writings about women.  According to Stankorb, this information had either been held back from her in her evangelical circles or those who taught her “never tested their biblical knowledge critically enough to learn it” (p.84).  I learned about these theories in seminary, but we also learned why they were wrong.  I continue to believe they’re wrong, but Stankorb portrays them as truth.  Normally pastors don’t talk about these wrong theories much with their congregations because it’s a better use of our time to speak about what’s true and good, especially the gospel.  But the unwitting reader could pick up this book and buy her argument that there’s either conspiracy or ignorance hiding the truth from believers when, in reality, this is a false dilemma.  That makes it difficult for me to give the book an enthusiastic recommendation.

Despite the author’s baggage, she has done some valuable investigative reporting.  She’s listened to the stories of numerous women and relates them respectfully.  She’s given opportunity for those accused to respond – sadly, few did in any meaningful way.  What she’s reported here is a disturbing pattern of misogyny and abuse in churches claiming to be Christian.  Most of the churches are either Baptist or Pentecostal, though there are also three chapters on Christ Church, pastored by Douglas Wilson in Moscow, Idaho.  This church claims to be Reformed but, since they don’t hold consistently to the Reformed confessions, there is reason to question whether they have a right to this label.

One troubling theme in the book has to do with how so many churches have tried to deal with matters of abuse strictly internally.   Sadly, I’ve personally encountered too many situations like this in my own background in the CanRC and FRCA.  One example from Stankorb involves Doug and Nancy Wilson counselling a domestic violence victim, “The Wilsons advised that if he was ever violent and left the house, not to allow him back in. She also says that they did not think police involvement was yet necessary, ‘because it can be dealt with within the church.’ (Although police involvement might eventually be necessary.).” (p.218). Eventually Wilson did call the police, but only after the abusive spouse destroyed the family home and smashed up people’s cars on his street. Domestic violence, like all forms of abuse, is a crime. It should be treated like a crime. The church can’t just deal with it internally.  We have to involve law enforcement and the legal system.  We would never imagine dealing with a crime like murder strictly within the church.  Why does abuse warrant an exception?  If an abuser is really repentant, he’ll turn himself in to the police and confess his crime and live with the consequences. If we expect that from a repentant murderer, why not a repentant abuser?

Some of the people whose stories are told in Disobedient Women have turned away from the Christian faith completely.  Some have become atheist or agnostic.  Some of them have turned to less orthodox forms of the Christian faith.  Considering the suffering they’ve endured from so-called Christians, it’s difficult to blame them.  But it also makes one grieve.  Because Christians have not taken seriously the weightier matters of the law (like mercy and justice), we have given cause for unbelief.  There is no respite here by turning to God’s sovereignty in election or reprobation.  There is only human responsibility.  We should never be the cause of someone else’s stumbling and falling away.  Our churches have to do better.  That begins with honesty.  But where it ends is mercy and justice.  Mercy – compassion for those who’ve been hurt, also in practical ways.  Mercy – also for those who abusers who are sincerely repentant.  Justice – instead of hindering, facilitating the proper processes for the legal system to deal with these matters.

I’m thankful for the solid grounding I’ve been given in apologetics.  Without that, I would read a book like this, be so disillusioned, and possibly deconstruct and turn away myself.  It is deeply upsetting how people who call themselves Christians can treat other people made in the image of God like this.  This is another factor which makes this book difficult.  On the one hand, the stories here need to be told.  These great evils beckon for the disinfectant of sunlight.  But on the other hand, training in apologetics hasn’t been one of the strong points in my Reformed tradition.  Personally, I can read this book and put it in perspective.  My moral outrage makes sense within the truth of the Christian worldview.  But what about those who haven’t had this same grounding?  I’d be afraid to hand them this book.  Despite all the failings of some Christians and some churches, the Bible is still true, Christianity is still true, the gospel remains relevant, and Christ is the only way, the truth, and the life.  I can elucidate a clear basis for saying that (which I won’t elaborate on here), but not every professing Christian can.  If you can’t, I’d suggest you read this book first before reading Disobedient Women

Let me finish with the idea of a reckoning.  Stankorb has described an “evangelical reckoning.”  Her focus is on American evangelical churches.  I think that day of reckoning is here for Reformed churches like the FRCA and CanRC too.  According to Stankorb, the catalyst for this reckoning has been the Internet.  It is the great leveller, giving everyone a voice.  Forums already exist for ex-CanRC people, ex-PRCA people, ex-Reformed (in general) people, and others.  Our sins and shortcomings in how we’ve dealt with women and how we’ve dealt with abuse are becoming public.  Are we going to humbly listen to what’s being said and try to learn from it?  Or will we just get our backs up and maintain the status quo?  Time will tell, but I pray that having our dirty laundry aired will motivate us to learn from the gospel how better to reflect our Saviour Jesus.